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Namibia’s White Lady

stamp white lady brandberg 1954 webRock art is the stuff of legend. Literally. Ancient cultures used it as a form of storytelling, without knowing others around the world were also leaving their marks. It was also widely used in rituals, to heal, or strengthen the community. Interpreting shapes and colours thousands of years later is an evolutionary process that often leads to interesting conclusions.

Namibia’s White Lady, who draws hundreds of tourists annually, is a prime example.

Reinhard Maack, a German surveyor discovered the painting in 1918, while exploring the Tsisab Valley on Brandberg Mountain. At 2,606 meters (8,550 feet), it’s Namibia’s highest peak. The White Lady is one of 50,000 registered pictures in 1,000 rock art sites on the mountain.

For years, experts bandied around the hypotheses that Phoenician seafarers had sailed down the coast of Africa, crossed the Namib, and painted a picture of their princess on rock.

The assumption is understandable. An expert on European rock art noted similarities between the Brandberg paintings and ancient Mediterranean art. The figure’s long hair and white paint on the lower body resembled a European lady, he reasoned.

Closer inspection challenged that theory. The figure had distinctly male genitalia and held a bow and arrow, something women did not carry.

Scientists now agree that the white colour is likely body painting. Antelope-tail flywhisks, rattles, and unique features point to the figure being a specific shaman, or medicine man. He’s still, however, known as the White Lady.

Other details corroborate the White Lady as approximately 2,000-year-old African art. ‘She’ is part of a group of similarly painted figures, one of which is clearly a woman. Seventy percent of the figures on the mountain depict human figures, indelibly painted on the rock by artists using earth pigments to create mostly red, but also black and white, and some yellow colours.

The origin of the artists remains a mystery. Most likely they were nomadic hunters and gatherers who moved around in groups of about 20. The San are but one of the groups descended from these prehistoric people.

Tourists throwing water on the paintings to accentuate their features for photographs have damaged them. As a result, access is strictly controlled and an official guide must accompany visitors. Getting there is a two-hour round trip hike across mostly flat terrain. The heat, aridity, and lack of shade, however, can make it strenuous.

Even though the paintings in what’s now known as the Maack Cave site are not representative or the most striking, it’s the White Lady who has made Brandberg famous.

Stamps and Stories, Vol. 2, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.